At the Highwayman's Pleasure (8 page)

‘My dear, did I see you come in on young Durden’s arm?’ The widow’s rather sharp countenance was flushed with heat from the crowded room. ‘Quite a surprise to see him here tonight, but I would put you on your guard where that young man is concerned, if no one has already done so.’

Charity blinked. ‘No, ma’am, they have not.’

‘Well, you will soon discover he has very few friends in Allingford.’ The older woman leaned closer. ‘
Such
an ungovernable temper.’ She looked up as the rustle of silk heralded Lady Beverley’s approach. ‘Will you not agree with me, my lady?’

‘Agree with what, madam?’

‘That Mr Durden’s intemperate nature makes him a man best avoided.’

‘Any man may lose his temper if the provocation is great enough,’ returned the magistrate’s wife in her usual cheerful manner. ‘I have never experienced his ill temper, although I do agree the young man did not behave very well, leaving his poor mother to manage Wheelston without any help. However, we do not fall out with him over it—after all, he is owner of a substantial property and Sir Mark is always anxious to get on with his neighbours wherever he can.’ She smiled at Charity. ‘I always make a point of inviting Mr Durden to our little soirées, but he never comes. In fact, he rarely visits Allingford.’

‘Then you have not seen him this evening? He is here,’ declared Mrs Tremayne. ‘He came in with Mrs Weston on his arm.’

‘Did he now?’ Lady Beverley’s brows went up. ‘Well, well, that is unusual. And he escorted you, Mrs Weston? How interesting.’

‘It is nothing, ma’am,’ said Charity, hoping she was not blushing. ‘I met Mr Durden on the street and he accompanied me for the last few yards, that is all.’

‘Very gallant of him,’ returned Lady Beverley. ‘But it is hardly surprising that he should take the opportunity—why, any gentleman would do so.’

‘But Mrs Weston should be on her guard,’ Mrs Tremayne persisted.

‘Well, now you have warned her I am sure she can be.’ Lady Beverley tucked her hand in Charity’s arm. ‘Now, if you will excuse me, ma’am, I am going to steal Mrs Weston from you. Sir Mark has brought guests who are mad to meet her.’ With another smile she carried Charity off, saying with a twinkle, ‘That is not exactly the truth, but I know how Mrs Tremayne rattles on and I so want you to tell me all about your next production...’

‘In a moment.’ Charity led her to a quiet corner. ‘I recall at our first meeting you said Mr Durden’s was a taciturn nature, but that it was—how did you phrase it?—understandable in the circumstances.’

‘Heavens, did I? Fancy you remembering that.’

‘As an actor I am obliged to remember a great deal,’ replied Charity, not to be distracted. ‘What did you mean, ma’am? What circumstances?’

The lady glanced across the room to where Ross was standing alone by a window.

‘The family at Wheelston always kept themselves apart, my dear. Ross Durden was sent to naval college as a boy, so here in Allingford we knew very little of him, save for his occasional visits to Wheelston. Of course, when he
remained
at sea after his father died, that did cause some talk.’

‘So is it people’s disapproval that has made him taciturn?’ Charity shook her head, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. ‘I can see from your look that there is more to it than that.’

Lady Beverley gave a nervous little laugh, ‘My dear, I vow you are like a terrier with a bone, worrying away at me like this! It would be wrong of me to speculate and I do so hate gossipmongers—’

‘Come now, ma’am. If you are going to allow people like Mrs Tremayne to warn me against the gentleman, then you must give me a reason.’

Lady Beverley looked at her desperately, but seeing that Charity would not be moved, she capitulated, saying with a sigh, ‘When Mrs Durden became ill Wheelston gradually fell into disrepair. Creditors went unpaid and the staff were turned off, all save Mrs Durden’s nurse companion. There was some talk at the time that she and Mr Durden were engaged to be married, but that might have been pure gossip, for the young lady was rarely seen in Allingford. Certainly she stayed until the old lady died, although she told Dr Jarvis—in the strictest confidence, of course—that she was only staying on out of Christian goodness. She said Mr Durden had instructed that the rents must be put up to help pay for the upkeep of the house. Well, there was only one way
that
could end: the tenants couldn’t pay and were forced to move out. Wheelston was in a very poor way when old Mrs Durden died.’ She gave a little sigh, her kindly, cheerful countenance unusually sober. ‘Her nurse companion left before the funeral— Well, what else could she do, if there was no money to pay her salary? By the time Mr Durden came home again his mama was buried and the house and estate had been closed up for several months.

‘Perhaps he
was
to blame for the parlous state of affairs—there is no doubt that it could have been avoided if he had left the navy sooner and taken charge of Wheelston—but I saw him soon after he returned and I believe he was very much shocked by what he found, so perhaps he had not realised...’

‘So everyone condemns him because he let his estate fall to pieces?’ Charity asked, incredulous. ‘Surely he is not the only landowner to be guilty of such negligence—’

‘Oh, no, my dear, it is much worse than that.’ Lady Beverley pulled her closer. ‘He went off in search of his mother’s companion and they rowed terribly, so much so that he was charged with blasphemy.’ Lady Beverley sighed again. ‘I suppose he lost his temper. Being a sailor I have no doubt that he was brought up to be familiar with all the most outrageous curses and oaths!’

‘And do you think they had really been engaged to be married?’

Lady Beverley spread her hands. ‘It was a rumour, never confirmed. But even if she jilted him, nothing can excuse him ripping up at her so brutally. However, he has been severely punished for it. The conviction for blasphemy barred him from holding any military appointment and he was stripped of his captaincy. He could not return to sea and he has been living at Wheelston ever since, doing his best to build the place up again.’

‘So that was what he meant.’

Lady Beverley looked puzzled. ‘I beg your pardon, my dear?’

‘I asked Mr Durden why he had not gone back to sea and he said he’d had no choice. Poor man.’

‘Yes, but if he had not lost his temper and said such vile things then he would not have found himself in that position. And he has shown no contrition, no remorse for his error. That is why Mrs Tremayne was giving you the hint, my dear, and she is right to urge caution. If the man cannot control his temper, it would be very unwise for you to become too friendly with him.’

‘I have not met Mr Durden often, but I had not thought him hot-headed,’ said Charity slowly. ‘And blasphemy is such an—an
archaic
charge. What he said must have been very bad, otherwise I am sure Sir Mark would have sent him away to cool down—’

‘Oh, my dear, the case did not come up before my husband! If only it had, then the outcome might have been very different. No, Mr Durden was charged in Beringham. You see, the young woman was married to the magistrate by then and Mr Weston is the last man to forgive a blasphemer.’

Charity blinked at her. ‘She is m-married to Phineas Weston?’

‘Why, yes! Apparently, soon after she left Wheelston she inherited a small fortune from an aunt, which made her a very eligible match. I suppose poor Mr Durden was distraught that she hadn’t married
him
, for that would have solved all his financial problems. No, no, it was Phineas Weston who charged him with blasphemy. That might have gained Mr Durden some sympathy in Allingford, had he not chosen to keep himself so aloof.’ She laughed. ‘Such a pity that you should have chosen to style yourself as Mrs Weston, my dear. It is not at all a popular name around here, you know.’

The familiar chill crept over Charity. Her father was still wrecking lives, although now he was using the law as well as the Bible to justify himself. Her eyes strayed back to Ross. No wonder he rarely smiled, if he had been robbed of a promising career by a few ill-chosen words, uttered under severe provocation.

She tried to put the matter from her mind as she worked her way around the room, chatting to the rich patrons she already knew and charming the new ones that Hywel introduced to her. There was no opportunity to speak to Ross again, but she was very aware of him in the room. He spoke to very few people and spent most of his time standing at the side of the room. He was a man apart.

She blocked the thought. If she did not take care, she would be feeling sorry for the gentleman, and that would never do. Her father had frequently flown into a rage at the slightest provocation and she had suffered the consequences. She had no intention of allowing her sympathies to lead her into any kind of liaison with a penniless hothead.

* * *

Her smile never faltered, and she continued to chatter and laugh as if she had not a care in the world, yet Charity was exceedingly tired. She longed to send for Betty and to take her leave. However, there were still a number of people seeking her out and it was nearly an hour before she could go in search of Hywel Jenkin. She found him talking to a little group that included Ross Durden as well as Sir Mark and Lady Beverley. Charity hesitated, wondering if she should wait until Hywel was alone, but the hour was advanced and she was longing to go home.

Hywel smiled as she came up beside him.

‘Ah, and here is the leading light of our group of players!’

‘I wonder how you manage it, Mrs Weston,’ declared Sir Mark. ‘To be performing night after night and then to stay up to all hours, entertaining us with your sparkling wit and conversation. It must be very fatiguing.’

‘One grows accustomed.’ Charity included them all in her smile, her eyes sliding away from Ross Durden’s dark, intense gaze.

However, it seemed he was determined to gain her attention, for he asked her quietly, ‘And when is your next performance, Mrs Weston?’

His deep voice was like warm velvet on her skin. Ideas and half-formed sentences chased around in her head. She had heeded the warnings to avoid Ross Durden, but now realised that she had spent the entire evening thinking of him, wanting to impress him by saying something witty and clever. Now when she had her chance, she could not even open her lips! She was relieved when Hywel answered.

‘The first week in April, sir. We are presenting
The Clandestine Marriage
.’

‘Ah, that is a particular favourite of mine!’ exclaimed Lady Beverley. ‘And Mrs Weston is to play Fanny, am I correct? Of course I am, for who else could play the beautiful young heroine? But April? Why, that is weeks away. How are we to entertain ourselves until then?’

‘We must allow our players a little break before we begin rehearsals,’ Hywel responded. ‘They need a holiday.’

Charity met his smiling gaze and chuckled.

‘We need our sleep, too, so I will bid you all
adieu
.’

Lady Beverley put out her hand.

‘Before you go, Mrs Weston, pray tell me you will come to my little soirée on Tuesday next? Just a few friends, you know, and you need do nothing but come and enjoy yourself.’ She continued with an arch smile, ‘Now, I will not take a refusal, since Mr Jenkin has just told us you will not be playing.’

‘Then I shall do my best to attend, ma’am.’

Laughing, Charity took her leave and went off to find her maid. She half expected Ross to offer to escort her home and knew a moment’s disappointment when he did not come after her.

All the better for you, my girl,
she told herself crossly.
That gentleman is taking up far too much of your thoughts!

* * *

The weather had remained cold, but now it took an icy turn and Charity was glad to stay indoors, although not for long. It took her no more than a couple days to catch up on her correspondence and to set the little house in order, and after that she began to miss her usual busy schedule. With the theatre closed and rehearsals for
The Clandestine Marriage
not yet started, Hywel and Will Stamp had gone off to enjoy a little hunting in the West Riding, and many of the other actors had taken the opportunity to visit family or friends. Charity would not have minded being alone in Allingford, had not a fall of snow on the icy roads made it too treacherous to hire the gig and go out exploring.

By Tuesday, the day of Lady Beverley’s evening party, Charity was longing for company and an evening of pleasure and entertainment, but those thoughts were driven from her mind when Betty came in with her morning hot chocolate. One look at the maid’s flushed cheeks and heavy eyes was enough to have Charity scrambling out of bed and ordering her to go and lie down immediately.

‘Aye, that I will, Miss Charity, just as soon as—’

‘As soon as nothing,’ said Charity firmly, taking the cup from her hands. ‘You will go to bed this minute and I shall bring you a soothing tisane to help you sleep. No, do not argue with me, if you please. You will recover very much quicker if you do as I say.’

She shooed her maid away and put on her wrap. Thankfully Thomas, her manservant, had kept the fire burning in the kitchen, so it did not take her long to boil a little water to steep the mixture of elderflower, peppermint and yarrow that she had found in Betty’s herb store.

Looking after her maid and keeping house filled Charity’s day, but come the evening the novelty of it all was wearing thin and she was looking forward to spending the evening with Sir Mark and Lady Beverley. She changed her homely woollen gown and apron for her cotton-lined taffeta. The deep, rich red of her gown would stand out amongst the cream and white muslins that were so very fashionable, but it had the advantage of buttoning down the front, which made it much easier for her to get on without Betty’s help. She put up her hair and took out the garnet parure that matched her gown. The set comprised a necklace, earrings and a jewelled pin that she fixed amongst her golden curls.

Charity regarded herself in the mirror. Was it too grandiose for a country soirée? Perhaps. A mischievous smile tugged at her lips. She was an actress and a little ostentation was expected of her. Satisfied that she would not disappoint, she put on her pattens, wrapped herself in her fur-lined travelling cloak and set off the short distance to Beverley House.

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